Top firms reject candidates with ‘working class accents’

The UK’s top law firms are rejecting well-qualified candidates because their accents are too ’working class’, according to a new study.

Cass Business School
Cass Business School

Research carried out by the Cass Business School shows that while elite firms have made strides on increasing recruitment of ethnic minorities into their ranks, working class applicants miss out because they do not fit with the brand.

A partner at one of five case study firms, all of which are in the UK top 20, told Cass Business School: “There was one guy who came to interviews who was a real Essex barrow boy, and he had a very good CV, he was a clever chap, but we just felt that there’s no way we could employ him. I just thought, putting him in front of a client – you just couldn’t do it.

“I do know though that if you’re really pursuing a diversity policy you shouldn’t see him as rough round the edges, I should just see him as different.”

Dr Louise Ashley at Cass Business School interviewed 130 staff at five prominent London law firms. More than 90 per cent of lawyers who took part in the research had fathers who had been managers or senior officials, and at two of the firms more than 70 per cent of lawyers were privately educated.

However, Ashley cautioned against simple solutions.

“It’s a very complex problem, blaming firms for social exclusion is like blaming the goalie for letting the ball through, responsibility doesn’t lie solely with them,” she said.” There’s a fear among some firms that if they recruit from the new universities, for example, then it will seem like they’re unable to recruit from traditional institutions. Law firms tend to move as a pack and it’ll take quite a brave firm to stand apart and do something different.”

She pointed to the experience of the big accountancy firms that have rolled out non-graduate entry routes into the profession in a more systematic way as a possible model to emulate.

The issue of social background has come increasingly onto the agenda following the publication of the Milburn Report, which found that the law was a “closed shop”.

Some firms such as Bird & Bird and Herbert Smith now provide mentoring and financial support to small groups of law students from deprived areas, while others, including Addleshaw Goddard, Baker & McKenzie, Herbert Smith and Linklaters, are starting to monitor the social background of their intake (8 November 2010).

However, Ashley argued that such initiatives were not purely a question of firms paying lip service to diversity.

“Firms often do this with good intentions, but there’s a gap between what the public rhetoric is and what the private rhetoric is,” she said. “You have things happening at a corporate level but they’re not necessarily carried through to the people doing recruitment.”

This comes after separate research found that the legal profession has become increasingly elitist in recent years, with the proportion of magic circle partners aged under 39 who were educated at public schools having risen from 59 per cent to 71 per cent between 1988 and 2004 (15 November 2010).